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The chairman of the board

In matters of Monopoly, he’s got the intellectual property

By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / October 22, 2009

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Phil Orbanes doesn’t wear a cartoonish top hat, carry a fancy cane, or appear on a Community Chest card. But he is the closest thing to a real-life Mr. Monopoly as you can get.

Orbanes, a Gloucester resident, is chief judge at the Monopoly World Championships yesterday and today in Las Vegas, a title he has held for the past 30 years. Players from 40 countries are competing for more than $20,000. No one passes go unless Orbanes says so.

He is the world’s foremost Monopoly historian, the author of the definitive reference book, “Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How It Got That Way.’’ When officials at Hasbro, which owns Monopoly, have a question about the game, they call Orbanes.

And Orbanes is responsible for the single greatest change in Monopoly since it was introduced during the height of the Great Depression. One morning while taking a shower, Orbanes thought of adding a third die to the game to help speed things up.

That special third die has been included in every standard Monopoly set Hasbro has sold since 2008 and has helped cut the average game length to less than 90 minutes.

“Phil is basically the central hub of the Monopoly world,’’ said Kevin Tostado, who is directing a documentary on Monopoly called “Under the Boardwalk.’’

How could a board game become someone’s life calling? Well, if you can remember the thrill of being the first player to buy Boardwalk, or own all the railroads, or have hotels across the board, Orbanes said, you will have your answer.

“Monopoly is the great equalizer; that’s one of the reasons I was so excited by it when I was 8 years old,’’ said Orbanes, now 62. “It was the first activity I participated in with my aunts and uncles where I felt equal. I wasn’t the little kid who they were patting on the head, saying, ‘There, there’ or ‘Do this’ or ‘Do that.’ I was holding my own.’’

As head judge, Orbanes is firm, fair, knowledgeable, meticulous, and engaged, colleagues said.

“He approaches the game with a sense of humility that players respect,’’ said Matt McNally, a former US champion.

But it is his undying passion for the game that sets him apart. “I can see at times when he’s judging that he wishes he was playing the game,’’ Tostado said.

“I think keeping a straight face is probably one of the toughest things for him when judging,’’ said Orbanes’s son, Philip Jr. “He sees a trade that, because you’ve played the game hundreds of times, you know will lead to a player losing. He wants to tell them, ‘Don’t do it!’ But he has to keep a poker face and not spoil the deal.’’

Just how many games of Monopoly has Orbanes played in his life?

“Not as many as you’d think,’’ he said, chuckling, in an interview before this week’s competition. “Most people don’t want to play me.’’

The game, Orbanes said, can be anything but child’s play. Great players memorize the statistical odds of landing on Kentucky Avenue, keep mental counts of which Chance cards have been played, and employ calculated tactics - the “Housing Shortage Strategy,’’ for instance - to bankrupt other players.

Judges, meanwhile, are essential in tournament play, because Monopoly’s rules include “a number of gray areas’’ involving trades and playing out of turn.

“In Monopoly, you’re not required to pay a rent - did you know that?’’ Orbanes asked. “Let’s suppose that you land on my property and you owe me $200. If you want to be nice and pay the rent to me, that’s fine. But if you say nothing, then it’s up to me to ask for it.’’

Orbanes was a college student when he founded his first game company. At 32 he landed his dream job as head of research and development for Monopoly’s manufacturer, Salem-based Parker Brothers. Monopoly tournaments - he has traveled everywhere from London to Singapore and judges the US Championships every four years - and Monopoly books (he’s written three) followed.

In 1995 Orbanes cofounded a boutique game company in Danvers called Winning Moves Games, which puts out a version of Monopoly with skyscrapers called “The Mega Edition.’’ His son works by his side, promoting such classics as Mille Bornes, Pay Day, and Risk.

The senior Orbanes’s favorite tournament? The 1992 World Championships in Berlin, the first to include players from former Soviet-bloc countries.

His favorite player? That might be Angelo Repole, a 10-year-old from Staten Island who lost the 1979 US Championships by one roll of the dice.

“The crowd just let out this collective moan,’’ Orbanes remembered. “Angelo, who at the time was so excited he was chewing bubble gum, blew this big bubble that burst all over his face.’’

The big story at this year’s world tournament, which concludes today when the world champion is awarded $20,580 (the sum of all the money in a standard Monopoly game), might be Orbanes’s speed die. It accelerates the rate at which properties are purchased and, later in the game, increases the odds of players’ landing on built-up properties.

“It wasn’t, ‘What can I do to put my mark on the game?’ ’’ Orbanes said. “It was, ‘How can I satisfy this criticism that Monopoly takes too long so the game doesn’t fade in popularity?’ ’’

Of course, Monopoly has not needed much help. The game turns 75 in 2010, and according to Hasbro, is as popular as ever.

“A friend of mine at Parker Brothers, Chris Campbell, once said, ‘Monopoly is 75 percent skill and 75 percent luck,’ ’’ Orbanes said. “There’s really a lot of wisdom behind that reply. In some games, no matter how good your skill is, luck predominates. That’s the way it goes.’’

Tricks of the trade
1) Buy everything you land on early in the game, because you’ll need trading materials to make a good deal. If needed, pay to get out of jail early in the game so you don’t miss out on the buying spree.

2) Build three houses on a monopoly as soon as you can. “Three is optimal because there is a dramatic increase in rent for three houses on any property on the board, no matter what color or where it’s located. It’s sort of foolish to sit with two houses when you can afford three, because the difference is maybe enough to put a player out of the game.’’

3) Be diplomatic - always. “You have to present yourself as the kind of player that your opponents would not mind losing to. If they decide they don’t like you they’re going to lock you out of trades or do everything they can to make sure that you’re not the one who’s beating them.’’

4) Let someone else choose the race car and top hat tokens. “If you have something like the iron or the thimble or maybe the wheelbarrow, which most people really don’t care for, they don’t get paid as much attention to as the other tokens.’’ If your opponents lose track of your piece, they might just forget to collect rent when you land on their properties.